OMAHA, Neb. — Having just returned from leading the United States to gold in the IIHF World Junior Championships, Nebraska-Omaha coach Dean Blais found his ‘Welcome home’ gift from his full-time job to be less than ideal.
With a grueling second-half schedule beckoning, Blais had hoped his return to the Mavericks’ bench this week would galvanize the team. There were signs of that on Friday, with UNO outshooting visiting Alaska 42-21 on the night, but positive signs for the hosts were too few and far between in their 3-1 loss to the 20th-ranked Nanooks at Qwest Center Omaha.
UA had not played since losing 5-3 to UNO in Fairbanks on Dec. 12, but any thoughts of the Nanooks exhibiting rust on Friday were erased by an opening goal from freshman winger Andy Taranto only 51 seconds into the game.
UNO never led in the game, only managing to draw level late in the second period after sophomore center Alex Hudson beat UA netminder Scott Greenham near-side from a low-percentage angle within the left face-off circle. The Nanooks’ goalie shut up shop from there on however, and UA freshman winger Nik Yaremchuk put home a loose puck off of a rebound for his fourth goal of the season at 4:23 of the third period to give the visitors the lead for good.
Dion Knelsen later put the game on ice for the Nanooks, putting a point-blank wrist shot between Faulkner’s legs with 1:59 left in the game. It was the senior center’s second point of the night, having been credited with an assist on Yaremchuks game winner earlier in the final period.
“We were expecting a better result,” Blais said. “We played hard, but I thought their goaltender was the difference in the game. He made good saves with not a lot of rebounds. We had traffic on the net — and missed some open nets — but we didn’t get any real puck luck tonight.”
In the opposite dressing room, UA coach Dallas Ferguson figured that Friday would be an emotional night for Blais and the Nanooks’ hosts, and Ferguson was pleased with the way his team responded to the resulting pressure.
“I had been anticipating exactly what I got (out of this game),” he said. “UNO played hard, and obviously one of the differences in the game was Scott Greenham. He played outstanding, and they got a lot of quality scoring chances, but Scott was there, and he was probably our best player tonight.
“At the same time, there’s probably a lot of energy going around with Blais winning a gold medal. That’s an amazing accomplishment, and I’m sure his players were excited for him, knowing them and knowing how much they respect him. There’s some excitement there, and they hadn’t been (playing) at home for quite a while, so they were probably excited to be playing at home and, having their coach back, they probably felt pretty good about that, too. That’s what I expected, and we played hard, and we hung around and hung around and took advantage of our opportunities.”
Ferguson now hopes to see his Nanooks (now 10-5-4, 7-5-3-3 CCHA) try and seal its final regular-season series with the Mavericks (9-9-5, 5-8-2-1) when the two sides meet again on Saturday in Omaha.